Psalm 120, 121, 122, 123; 2 Samuel 18:9-18; Acts 23:12-24; Mark 11:27-12:12
‘Let me sing a love song for my beloved concerning his vineyard.’ So begins the fifth chapter of Isaiah. So much hard work, so much sweat, has the beloved (in this song, God) put into the vineyard (in this song, Israel, but for our purposes, humanity at large). It’s a labor of love. And yet, no grapes–even worse, some terrible, rotten, sick-inducing fruit. And God’s Isaiah response is harsh: tear up the wall, rip out the plants, start over somewhere else, let the desert reclaim this failed plot of land.
‘So a man planted a vineyard,’ says Jesus in Mark today. Same story, only worse: the tenant farmers turn out to be rebels and murderers. But a slightly different outcome. Instead of turning the divine back on the whole vineyard, the Farmer turns out the bad tenants and gets new ones.
I’ve always thought that the difference between Old and New Testament isn’t that God goes from cruel to loving overnight. It’s that–and I’m sure this is mildly heretical, so sue me–God struggles through the entire Hebrew revelation to come to some relationship with His people which keeps Him both all powerful and all good. His divine justice means things that are bad have to be punished, and firmly. But that clashes with His divine love. God seems to really want a relationship with us, a brawling rowdy lot of recalcitrant naked apes on a blue rock circling a minor star in a not-so-important galaxy. Why, I can’t for the life of me imagine. Surely there are more tractable species out there in the vast universe, species who’ll respond to His perfect power and love in more appropriate fashion. But God lavishes time, and second chances, on Homo sapiens, and still we keep screwing up. And so, in a manger in Bethlehem, God limits Himself. He gives up His absolute power–as will be perfectly revealed when the nails go into divine hands on Calvary–and limits His power in order to stay all love.
Which is why the Mark vineyard gets new tenants instead of bulldozers. The endless love means the vineyard, our minor blue rock circling an obscure star in a not-so-important galaxy, will continue to be given more chances. Future generations will not be sent off refugee-like to scrounge for grace and love because their ancestors, or their ‘betters,’ chose poorly. The vineyard, which you and I inhabit, offers us all a chance at a relationship. God no longer gives up on us, even though He may well move on from me. And it no longer matters which group the ‘us’ is–God doesn’t give up on any group, any family, any ethnicity, any class, any religion, no matter how flawed their habits and behaviors and beliefs may be. The vineyard stays open for business, and there’s always room for new tenants. Jews, Greeks, male, female, slave, free, we all get a shot at the relationship our inner souls crave, a shot at a good harvest.